‘Peyton Place: Part Three’ DVD Review: Sudser Wonder

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To paraphrase a classic line by a star of TV’s Peyton Place in a later role, what can you say about a decades-old TV series that dies?

Peyton Place has died several times, in fact, not only with its cancellation by ABC after 514 episodes in 1969, but also, in effect, after the first two volumes of 30-plus episodes premiered on DVD in 2009.

Since then it’s been an eight-year wait for this week’s release of Peyton Place: Part Three, offering 33 more segments of the durable nighttime soap opera based on the 1956 novel Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and the 1957 film starring Lana Turner.

And happily, the sudser series of personal dramas in a quaint (on the surface) New England town will be back beyond that.

On June 26 Shout! Factory will release Peyton Place: Part Four. That will complete the show’s lengthy (114-episode) first season and start its second.

How did Peyton Place manage so many episodes in five seasons? Critically panned but an immediate hit for fledgling ABC, which needed it, Peyton Place aired for two and then three nights per week and had no summer hiatus. (Color episodes began in 1966.)

Until June, fans can savor Part Three’s 33 well-shot episodes in black and white (not that source materials were always pristine) from the debut 1964-65 season — and perhaps appreciate them even more given the context of today’s daytime soaps.

Look, I’m not knocking General Hospital, The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless or Days of Our Lives, the only daytime soaps still standing. They have an enraptured audience, and they give actors work. In fact, many excellent actors have appeared on those shows, and still do.

But perhaps because it was shot for primetime, and certainly because its sensibilities were rooted in the far more chaste ’50s, Peyton Place’s nighttime soap of the ’60s is a far different experience.

Actors don’t stutter their lines for mock naturalism, a plague on today’s soaps. Scenes unfold slowly and calmly, with a subtle sense of the dramatic and rare Emmy-bait shouting matches. And the plots, while rife with crimes, jealousies and scandals, still have a melancholy sensitivity and quiet dignity which dates them, but in a good way.

Then there’s the intelligent writing and direction for a sprawling cast of superb actors — actors who continue to shine in Part Three.

Not to be vulgar, but Dorothy Malone as bookstore owner Constance Mackenzie was a “milf” before the term was invented. She was also one of Peyton Place’s most sympathetic characters, blending stylish ’60s modernity with kindness in her heart and a sweet sadness in her smile.

Future film star Mia Farrow, then only 19 years old, was a breakout revelation as daughter Allison, a wispy, ultra-femme and proper girl who was drawn to hunky rich kid and semi-bad boy Rodney Harrington.

He was played by another breakout film star to be, Ryan O’Neal, then 23. Though he’d knocked around TV for several years, Peyton Place was O’Neal’s breakthrough role, too.

Forget Farrow’s later baggage with Woody Allen or O’Neal’s with Farrah Fawcett. Here are two young actors blossoming before our eyes.

Along with Ed Nelson, Barbara Parkins, Warner Anderson, Christopher Connelly, Tim O’Connor, Lee Grant (who won an Emmy for the show) and others, they gave Peyton Place dramatic heft without showboating. They inhabited their characters — made them real — and that made the stories so compelling.

Part Three opens a bit past the midway point of Season One, with Constance marrying former flame and unjust jailbird Elliot Carson (O’Connor) and Rodney tentatively romancing Allison again. Mariette Hartley also appears in many of her 32 episodes as a troubled young doctor who’s new to town. And the once-proud Harrington clan is on the rocks.

I’ll leave it at that, because Peyton Place is best enjoyed in small increments as its  tenderly romanticized tale leisurely unfolds between some of TV’s most lovely opening and closing credits, thanks to idyllic small-town illustrations and the moving theme music of  Franz Waxman.

Yes, this decades-old Peyton Place can be seen as mere creaky nostalgia for Baby Boomers. But there’s nothing wrong with that. And as noted, in many ways it holds up against today’s soaps — if not surpasses them.

After this set and the next one there will be 384 more episodes to go. Let’s hope they, too, get a chance at new life without the show dying out again.

— Bruce Westbrook

 

 

 

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